Writer: Peter Strickland
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
Running time: 104mins
The lowdown: Peter Strickland follows the five star head rush of Berberian Sound Studio with another daring, intoxicating homage to 70s Euro cinema. Here it’s the work of eroticists such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin feeding the charged story of two women in a very particular relationship. Uninhibited sexuality, genuine romance and gorgeous style combine to create a breathlessly provocative movie.
The full verdict: Writer/director Peter Strickland’s films may be too outré and cine-literate to reach the casual viewer, but the cult following that has steadily built since 2009’s Katalin Varga guarantees his dark fantasies will continue seeing the light of a cinema screen. Here he even has the blessing of producer and Britain’s great horror hope Ben Wheatley.
The Duke of Burgundy arrives with a certain weight of expectation (S&M! Watersports! Human toilet!) that do it a disservice. There is confrontational content here, and gasp out loud moments, but the surprises are in the ideas and themes Strickland lays bare rather than envelope pushing visuals.
The premise is Post-It note simple. In the confines of a large estate in an unnamed country, lepidopterist Cynthia (Borgen’s Knudsen) tests the limits of love with her exuberant younger partner Evelyn (D’Anna). Playing and replaying a series of power games, Cynthia establishes dominance over her lover who enjoys punishment of a taboo nature.
The film coolly avoids judgement or sensationalism and like the best erotica what is withheld is often as thrilling as what is revealed. Black comedy also slips in through the back door, showing the preparation and routine required to enact a scenario that previously had seemed spontaneous (many tumblers of water are drunk).
But, The Duke of Burgundy (named after a type of butterfly) is not only concerned with titillation. As the story progresses, Cynthia and Evelyn’s rituals become a bizarre allegory for the compromises and allowances that typify every relationship. And when real life interrupts fantasy’s flow, be it through doubt or a prosaic bad back, it’s hard not to root for the two women’s relationship to pull through.
Knudsen and D’Anna are both performing outside their native language, lending the movie a further unworldly feel, and are fearless in conveying the conflicting emotions and desires that both keep the relationship fizzing and threaten to burn it out.
Visually, this is Strickland at his most confident. With cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland and the wonderfully named Andrea Flesch’s festish costumes he creates a panoply of seductive images that accentuate texture and surface, from the women’s skin to the never-ending supply of sheer stockings, black leather boots and the wings of the pinned butterflies adorning the walls of Cynthia’s office.
Elsewhere grubs and butterflies make a metaphor of the women’s lives in and out of the tight corsets, while repeated lectures on insect calls suggest they share a language others cannot understand. Certainly not men, who are entirely absent from and irrelevant to the movie. Add to this a recurring reflection motif suggesting doubling, alternating personalities and dominance & submissiveness and you have a film positively Lynchian in its onscreen clues.
As events turn darker and the fun begins to ebb, stunning kaleidoscopic sequences, set against Cat’s Eyes perfect pastiche strings-and-wind-instrument score, shift the film into melted reality, at one point literally disappearing into a tunnel (and an homage to classic surreal film Mothlight) before emerging for a denouement that is wholly satisfying.
Extraordinary and demanding a second viewing for those who stuck with it the first time. Plus, with a prominent credit for perfume in the opening credits, it’s all done in the best possible taste.